For Austen in August, hosted by Adam at Roofbeamreader, I decided to read about Jane Austen. Rather than reading a biography that presents Austen’s life in chronological order, I chose Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen. A Life in Small Things. Byrne picks everyday items to tell us more about who Jane Austen was, and it works very well. The chapters carry such titles as “The East Indian Shawl,” “The Card of Lace,” and “The Bathing Machine.” In the context of these items, we learn about Austen’s life and how each influenced her and her writing.
My favorite tidbit: Jane Austen gave John Willoughby, her “most wicked villain,” a curricle to drive—the Regency equivalent of a sports car. She knew what she was doing (of course). I can totally see Willoughby driving a sports car!
Other interesting facts:
- Jane Austen was a supreme social satirist with firm opinions and strong passions. The parodies and cheeky sketches she wrote early in her life, meant solely for entertaining her family and not the public, are often both biting and hilarious. I will appreciate the wit in her mature novels even more now, the next time I re-read one of them.
- Austen had a VERY extended family and could draw on real-life experiences for her novels. Her sister-in-law Fanny Palmer lived with Jane’s brother Charles onboard his ship in Bermuda and might be Mrs. Croft in Persuasion. Eliza de Feuillide, married to Jane’s brother Henry, probably influenced the character of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.
- She was allowed to read widely and to read challenging materials. She admired Fanny Burney’s novels Camilla and Cecilia and Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda. These novels all feature flawed heroines, which paved the way for Austen to create heroines who are rarely described as beautiful or accomplished at the outset of her novels.
- Jane Austen was a good and experienced traveler. Contrary to what I thought, she traveled a lot. She knew first-hand about the dangers and obstacles faced by Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Catherine in Northanger Abbey while they are traveling.
- She loved the theatre. Her family put on the same theatrical productions in their home as the young people do in Mansfield Park (although later in her life, Austen disapproved of “private theatricals”).
- Jane Austen loved to shop; apparently, she had great fun spending the money from her first royalty check. Still, in her novels, there are clear implications that “finery and parade” are not the route to happiness. (Think Mr. and Mrs. Elton in Emma and Robert Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.)
If you want to find out why it was clear to contemporary readers that Jane Austen was an abolitionist, why she was able to write so realistically about children—both spoiled and endearing, and whether she liked the bathing machines in Lyme, then you’re sure to find the answers in Byrne’s book. The best thing is that A Life in Small Things will work for both experienced and novice Austen readers. You don’t need to know Austen’s books by heart to appreciate this one, but if you do, you’ll find much to explain why Austen wrote what and how she did.
I will send one lucky Austen in August participant a copy of this book, so head on over to Adam’s blog to find out how you can win.